• Marc Johnson

Downton Upper


A few million of us have been, sort of, introduced to Lloyd George thanks to the PBS import of Downton Abbey, the Masterpiece series that began its fourth season last Sunday. In an episode in the first season of Downton, Lloyd George’s name is mentioned in passing drawing, as usual, a stinging retort from the Dowager Countess played so well by Maggie Smith. “Please don’t speak that man’s name,” she huffs, “we are about to eat.”

At the time – we’re right before the outbreak of The Great War – Lloyd George, described appropriately by his great granddaughter the historian Margaret MacMillan “as one of the most interesting and controversial politicians in modern British politics,” was serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Liberal government and he had proposed what would come to be called “The People’s Budget.”

That budget sparked a revolution in British society. Lloyd George promised to pay for both guns and butter in pre-war Britain by soaking the rich. He advocated social reforms, particularly old age pensions and a war against “poverty and squalidness,” as well as massive spending on the British Navy, including the huge dreadnoughts thought necessary to keep pace with the German Kaiser’s naval ambitions.

Lloyd George, MacMillan writes in her superb book The War That Ended Peace, loved a good fight and didn’t flinch from his People’s Budget that was constructed around increases in “death taxes” and new and steep taxes on the landed aristocracy. Little wonder they disliked “that man” in the plush rooms at Downton Abbey. He was paving the way for the ultimate demise of Lord Grantham and his like.

“The rich wanted the dreadnoughts,” MacMillan writes of her great grandfather, “and now they didn’t want to pay.” And, for that matter, just what was the value of the aristocracy? Lloyd George answered this way: “A fully equipped duke costs as much to keep up as two Dreadnoughts – and they are just as great a terror – and they last longer.”

On another occasion Lloyd George said, “death is the most convenient time to tax rich people.” In the U.S. conservative politicians would label that “class warfare” and we’d debate the fairness of “death taxes.” Such policy made Lloyd George prime minister.

Downton Abbey, for all its high-class soap opera touches – the nasty villains, crippling tragedy and clueless Lords – really offers a peephole into the rigid class structure that once, and to some degree still does, define British life. Downton is at the center of a society where ones life and possibilities were defined by ones birth. The imperious Mr. Carson, Downton’s butler, and his downstairs staff were born to “service” and lord – or My Lord – help them if they screw up. Those who manage to escape their class limitations – the upstairs maid who dreams of becoming a secretary and the Irish chauffeur Tom Branson who manages to escape for love – are the exceptions. Mrs. Hughes, Daisy and the rest seem destined to live and die in service.

Most Americans, of course, continue to buy the notion that with our long-ago revolution against the mother country we were able to create a “classless society.” Even as income inequality and a lack of mobility have become features of modern American society few politicians on this side of the pond would dare to advocate a “redistribution” of resources from the country’s economic lords to the little people. Rather than disparage the 1%, Americans seem to let the excesses of a Bernie Madoff or JP Morgan Chase float away like the smoke from one of Lord Grantham’s after dinner cigars. Perhaps some of our guilty pleasure in feasting on the glided soap opera that is Downton is that we are convinced our make believe “classless” society is superior even if the dinner time attire at Downton is much better than sitting on the sofa and eating a Domino’s.

Americans have never had a royal family unless you count the Kennedys and George Washington rejected John Adams’ suggestion that the president be addressed as “His Excellency.” Still we loved Lady Diana and can’t get enough of the future king and queen. We adore British imports – Scotch whiskey, The Beatles, James Bond and Manchester United. Since at least 1941 when Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt struck a partnership to defeat the Nazis, the United States and Britain have had their “special relationship.” In almost every case – the Suez Crisis in 1956 being a major exception – we’ve been joined at the hip, often for good and occasionally not, with the Brits on matters of foreign policy.

As much as I like the series, and I really do, Downton says as much about America in 2014 as it does about Britain in 1922. As the New York Times noted in marking the return of the fourth season the series and its characters are remarkable in their ability to soldier on when terrible things happen. “The series is optimistic, warmhearted, almost Reaganesque in its ability to find a rainbow. Mr. [Julian] Fellowes [the series creator] holds up a bowdlerized edition of British society, where beneath a thin veneer of stratification, servants and masters are friends and confidants, and even cataclysm doesn’t break the bond.”

We also like Downton so much, I think, because of what it doesn’t say. A television series devoted to how The Great War destroyed a generation of British manhood and how domestic politics brought a landed aristocracy to heel wouldn’t command much of a following. On Sunday evening we get the sunny version, which is good television, but not very good history.

By 1922 Lloyd George, having sat across the table from Woodrow Wilson to craft the Treaty of Versailles and create the League of Nations, was out of power. Internal conflicts and scandal in the once dominate Liberal Party doomed the Liberals to minor party status from which the party has never recovered. Even Churchill jumped ship on his old mentor Lloyd George and returned to the Tories – the Dowager Countess certainly must have approved – as Britain sank into a period of deep reflection and sadness spawned by what Lloyd George called “the cruelest and most terrible War that has ever scourged mankind.”

David Lloyd George was born the son of a Welsh schoolmaster and as such would have had much more in common with Irish Tom Branson, the chauffeur turned Downton land manager, than with the dandy fellows who are sent into a twitter when black ties replace white at dinner. When Lloyd George was finally given his own title – Earl Lloyd George of Dwyfor in 1945 – he is reported to have said in Welsh “Y Gwir Yn Erbyn Y Byd ” – The truth against the world.

As we tune in this week to see if the sensible American, Lady Cora, and her head strong daughters can continue to outwit – its not that difficult – the dense Lord of the Manor, recall that Lloyd George said his country’s job after The Great War – a war that claimed more than 700,000 British lives – was “to make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.” I doubt he had Lord Grantham in mind.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson